You might expect that a skilled professor like Cornell University's James Maas, PhD, could breeze into class five minutes before, shuffle his notes and begin the day's lesson. For someone like Maas--who has been lecturing three times a week for 36 years to a concert hall of 1,700 students--lecturing is as effortless as breathing, right?

Not quite. To prepare for his popular introduction to psychology course--an elective and one of the largest live lecture courses in the United States--Maas sequesters himself for three hours each Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday night to pour over his notes and refresh his material. He goes to bed early. Excited and anxious, he arrives at the concert hall an hour before class to check and double-check the audiovisual equipment.

The preparation pays off. Maas is considered one of the country's most effective and engaging lecturers and frequently is asked by new faculty to share his secrets. His top tip: Keeping the material fresh and interesting for yourself is as important as keeping the students engaged.

"Never get bored with lecturing," says Maas. "The year I get bored with one of my lectures is the year I know it's time to hand over the reins."

The Monitor recently asked Maas and a handful of other faculty known for their effective, engaging lectures to offer advice to faculty and graduate students on how they can make their lectures sing. Here are their favorite words of advice.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Practicing each talk is the best way to learn the material cold and feel comfortable speaking and answering questions about it, say the experts.

"Saying it all out loud will highlight the sticky points and give you a chance to smooth those out beforehand," says Edward O'Brien, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. "It feels like you run the risk of making the lecture stale, but the energy in the classroom will bring it to life and you feel like you are doing it for the first time."

University of Michigan professor of psychology Bill McKeachie, PhD, has been lecturing for 55 years and, while he doesn't rehearse his lectures anymore, he still takes anywhere from two to 12 hours ahead of time to update and revise them. He types his notes, adding time cues throughout that will tell him whether his delivery is on track. If he's not running behind, he uses additional material that he weaves into his lecture notes in brackets, such as an anecdote or research study that complements the lecture material.

Like McKeachie, experienced faculty say they bring their typed notes to every class to refer to--even for lectures they've given dozens of time--and warn against trying to deliver a lecture cold.

"I may never look at my typed notes," says Charles Brewer, PhD, of Furman University. "But I always have them there as a security blanket."

Find your style

Many lecturers make the mistake of emulating their mentor or favorite lecturer. Joe Hatcher, PhD, of Ripon College made that blunder when he started out, but quickly realized he needed to perform in a way that reflected his own style.

"Your personality is a part of your lecturing," he says. "So you have to lecture in a way that is comfortable to your personality."

So if jokes or theatrics aren't your style, don't try to use them or you'll feel awkward, say faculty. Instead, do what feels right, which for Hatcher was "having a big one-on-one conversation with my students," he says.

Whatever your approach, make enthusiasm a big part of it, says O'Brien.

"Enthusiasm is infectious," he says. "If you're not excited about the material, they're not going to be either."

Spice it up

Sometimes no amount of enthusiasm can bring a dull topic to life. That's when intermittent stories, anecdotes, videos or slides can enliven your lecture, say faculty.

Maas at Cornell plays popular music by artists such as the Dixie Chicks, Paul Simon and Jimmy Buffet at the beginning of his class "to wake students up and put them in a good mood," he says, and shows films and slides throughout each class that liven up his lecture material.

Brewer at Furman peppers his lectures with case histories, anecdotes, questions and dramatics: Students love it when he explains "infinity" by running a whiteboard marker across the board, carrying the marker out of class down the hall, returning in three minutes to cross the room and throw the whiteboard marker out the two-story window.

"That," he ends by saying, "is infinity."

Other faculty say weaving in stories about themselves or linking concepts to current research and events helps keep students engaged.

But one trap to avoid, says Brewer, is relying solely on computer graphics and technology to add flavor to your talk.

"I have sat through far too many sleep-inducing PowerPoint presentations that have had a lot of power and no point," he says. "Don't have what you say be verbatim with what's on the screen--use technology to supplement what you do, rather than supplant all creativity and enthusiasm."

Cover less, not more

Another lecturing pitfall for new faculty to avoid is packing too much into one lecture, say the experts. Some faculty, fearful of running out of material before class is over, plan far too much information for one lecture--and cover all of it. Others are afraid students won't learn certain material if it's not included in the lecture.

"If you can get three points across in one lecture, you are doing well," says McKeachie. "Keep in mind students can cover material in readings, too."

Professors who try to cover too much material also inevitably end up going too fast, says Richard Halgin, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"Less is more, don't expect to get through all of the material you have," says Halgin. "Go slowly and thoughtfully through the material. There is nothing you are going to say in that last 10 minutes that students are going to be devastated by if you don't get to."

Along those lines, don't be afraid to let the lecture go in a new direction, says Brewer.

"Some of the best classes I ever had departed entirely from what I had originally intended to do because a student asked a simple question or initiated an interesting debate," he says.

Make improvements

If your lecture style isn't working, says Brewer, be courageous enough to change it.

"A lot of seasoned faculty don't do that," he says. "They continue to do the same thing over and over, year after year, even if it's not working."

Find out how you're doing by asking students for feedback, especially if you feel they aren't responding well to your lecture style or aren't learning, suggest faculty. Hatcher at Ripon College asks students daily to write out what wasn't clear during his lecture and how he is doing so he can identify topics he may need to explain differently or habits he may need to change.

Maas at Cornell critiques himself: He audiotapes every lecture to see if he's talking too fast or if there were weak spots he can spruce up the next time. He's also helped colleagues by sitting in on their courses to monitor possible distracting gestures, overused jargon or frequent "ums" and "ahs."

Halgin at Amherst suggests new faculty observe other lecturers or seek out a mentor who is willing to talk about techniques and observe a class or two to offer feedback.

"Most experienced faculty are very flattered to be asked to talk about lecturing," Halgin says.

Furthermore, don't get discouraged when you don't know something, stumble on words or have a bad lecture day, say the experts.

"When I began lecturing, every now and then I gave a bad lecture and I felt awful, but the next time I would nail it and feel great," says O'Brien. "What I slowly have learned is that there is always tomorrow to fix it."


Further Reading

  • Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the techniques of teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

  • McKeachie, B. (1999). Teaching tips: strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (10th ed.). Houghton Mifflin Co.

  • Sternberg, R. (Ed.). (1997). Teaching introductory psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.